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The BBC's Brian Hanrahan
"He showed that popular opinion could overwhelm authoritarianism"
 real 28k

Friday, 31 December, 1999, 14:12 GMT
Yeltsin: Flawed founder of Russian democracy

A robust Boris Yeltsin in 1993 At his political peak: Boris Yeltsin in 1993

Yeltsin resigns
Boris Yeltsin will always be linked to the creation of democracy in Russia. By facing down the tanks outside the Russian Parliament in 1991 he showed that popular opinion could conquer authoritarianism.

The combination of personal courage and high principle earned him national acclaim and international attention. And it broke the stranglehold of communism, the ideology that nurtured him and first brought him to national power.

Parliament burns as Yeltsin confronts hard-liners Parliament burns as Yeltsin confronts hard-liners
In 1985, President Mikhail Gorbachev summoned Mr Yeltsin - Communist Party Secretary in Sverdlovsk, a secret city heavily involved in defence manufacturing - to take charge of Moscow and shake the corruption out of its moribund party structure.

Streetwise leader

Mr Yeltsin presented himself as a streetwise leader rather than a remote bureaucrat, preaching against perks for the party elite.

But reforming zeal infuriated the old guard who saw it as an attack on their lifestyle.

Attacked, eventually, even by Mr Gorbachev, he left the Politburo in 1988 and, within two years, the Communist Party.

But Mr Yeltsin, the party outcast, still commanded popular support. In August 1991, hardline conservatives attempted a coup. Mr Yeltsin rallied the liberals and restored Mr Gorbachev to office.

Nonetheless, he used the coup to discredit Mr Gorbachev as well as the plotters and emerged as the first elected President of Russia, a titular post so long as the Soviet Union existed, but it was not to last.

Soviet Union falls apart

By the end of the year the Soviet Union had fallen apart. Mr Yeltsin was now president of an independent Russia.

Within two years the Russian Parliament was again under siege, but this time the tanks were ordered in by President Yeltsin.

He tried to clear away his opponents and call new elections. They resisted, barricaded themselves inside parliament and attempted to take over state television.

The Chechen capital left in ruins The Chechen capital was left in ruins
The parliament building was blasted by troops loyal to Mr Yeltsin. The rebels surrendered and were led away as prisoners. But the new parliament was to prove nearly as truculent as its predecessor. The ultra-nationalists were a major new force in the parliament and they sniped at the president's government and political programme.

Economic shock

The collapse of the old order had shocked the Russian system. Economic liberalisation brought stock markets and rampant inflation: amazing wealth for a few, misery for many and a severe psychological shock for a country accustomed to state direction.

On the world stage, Russians watched their leader with mixed emotions. He wanted Russia to be respected as a world power, but he also wanted Western investment. Above all, the United States decided he was the best hope to stabilise his country and provided steadfast support.

Slowly the economy was coming right. New markets opened up popular products at affordable prices. But Yeltsin's once mighty popularity had been eroded.

Yeltsin is propped up after stumbling in Uzbekistan Yeltsin stumbles in Uzbekistan in October
By 1994 Russia was mired in blood and confusion. Its security forces began a botched attempt to put down a rebellion in the wayward southern republic of Chechnya.

Indiscriminate fighting laid populated areas to waste and killed many civilians. Liberal Russians said it was inhumane; nationalists called it ineffective.

Social vacuum

Crime and corruption became endemic, with contract killings almost an everyday occurrence. Even prominent politicians were cut down by the Russian mafia if they got in the way.

Into this social vacuum stepped the newly-revived Communist Party promising a seductive cocktail of old certainties and new vigour.

But as presidential elections approached in 1996, Mr Yeltsin began an astonishing political resurrection. He invited the Chechen rebels into the Kremlin to end the war. He mounted an energetic campaign. Above all, he appeared healthy and commanding.

The result of the election was a triumph for Mr Yeltsin. His changes had created winners as well as losers, and a majority of voters rejected a return to the communist past.

In November 1996 he underwent a successful quintuple heart-bypass operation in the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow. Two months later, he was hospitalised again with a serious bout of pneumonia.

He was never to be fully fit again - ailing health forced him to disappear from view for weeks at a time.

As a disabled imperial figure, his court became a swirl of intrigue and conspiracy as factions fought for the succession.

President Yeltsin has always been an impulsive and unpredictable politician, but a rapid series of government changes caused many to ask whether his legendary political instincts had deserted him.

He sacked two prime ministers in 1998 - one after a disastrous financial collapse - and another two in 1999.

Vladimir Putin, a former spy chief who took over the premiership in August 1999, soon unleashed the Russian army on Chechnya once more.

Thousands were killed and made homeless as the army sought to avenge what it saw as the humiliating defeat of 1996, and to restore Moscow's rule over the breakaway republic.

Once again, the outside world was shocked by the ferocity of the offensive but this time the campaign has proved popular with ordinary Russians.

Chechnya aside, one of the most remarkable features of Mr Yeltsin's rule is how generally peaceful it has been. He carried his country through a turbulent transformation with far less bloodshed than many had feared.

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See also:
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Yeltsin: I resign
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Boris Yeltsin: Master of surprise
31 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russia's leaders: The race for the Kremlin
20 Dec 99 |  Europe
Vladimir Putin: Spy turned politician

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